by April Paffrath
Last night I went to a screening for Fresh, a new documentary directed by Ana Sofia Joanes. The auditorium at Harvard was packed with eager people from the community, wanting to see the film and hear the panel afterward.
While the state of our agriculture system can kind of weigh you down, this film balanced the dire situation with views from some farmers who are working their butts off to farm in a more aware and sound manner. And it's no accident that the farmers who put in the quality efforts also produce the tastiest food.
The panel afterward featured the director, farmer Joel Salatin, farmer Will Allen, and Chef Michael Levitan of Lumiere. This film was full of info to digest, so for now I'll just offer up a couple of thoughts.
Will Allen of Growing Power is an urban farmer in Milwaukee and trains people to farm with little space and with no chemicals. He brought up the important concept of "food deserts." A food desert is a neighborhood or region (often poor) that doesn't have anything more than a convenience store, never mind a market filled with fresh vegetables and food that has plenty of nutrients. He's battling food deserts on a quest for food equality. I think it's an important point because not everyone has the time or money to go shopping at farmers' markets or get CSA shares. Not everyone even has that available near them. Everyone should have access to quality, wonderful, fresh food. As he says, we need to "grow farmers" who will provide food crops rather than industrial crops like corn and soy.
Joel Salatin is the founder of Polyface farms in Virginia. He raises animals on grass pastures through rotational grazing. He is an advocate of treating animals well and in keeping with how they act in nature. An animal should not be raised in little cages indoors, because that's not what the animal evolved to do. He wants, as he says, "the chicken to freely express its chicken-ness" rather than just be cranked out in a factory farm. He says he tried to recreate nature on the farm by moving his animals around from pasture to pasture to mimic how they would act on their own. He also said, memorably, that a cow is an herbivore, which means two things—it roams pastures and it doesn't eat meat, two things that are violated in big feed lots and factory farms. His animals roam and feed themselves off the chemical free grass pastures. It was a wonderful sight when Salatin started plucking grasses from the field and naming all of the types of grass available—he said that if you care for the grass, the grass will care for the animals.
Monoculture is a term I haven't run across very often. (Really, that's a surprise because our agriculture system is set up as a series of monocultures.) Michael Pollan talked about it in the film a bit, and I think that's the part that has me thinking the most. That's when you have a single species over a vast area—a huge cattle feed lot, acres and acres of just corn or soy, farm buildings packed with just pigs or chickens. Apparently, nature abhors a monoculture. In it, it's far easier for disease to spread and pests to take hold. Then animals and crops need to be treated with medication, pesticides and herbicides just to hang on against the pests or illness that easily take hold. If farmers move away from monoculture, then any potential damages can be minimized and absorbed, and food quality can increase greatly, as could the environmental and health benefits.
It's a great argument. When you look at the vast spaces filled with one single crop you can see that conventional farming is struggling to hang on and keep ahead of the problems it's creating for itself. In other words, farming as it has become in the last half century is not sustainable in its current form.
Check out the film. I intend to find out more about local urban farming. For now, I'm going to take the subway downtown and meet my CSA farmer at the Copley market.